EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 15, 2012

Gronk not needed now ... save him for playoffs

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

---- — FOXBORO — For Gronk’s sake, let the guy sit.

Not just for his sake mind you, but for the best opportunity the New England Patriots might have of taking Super Bowl XLVII, let Rob Gronkowski rest, recover and ready himself completely for the playoff run.

As we saw 10 months ago against the Giants in Indy, Gronk, who limped through the motions in Super Bowl XLVI with a tattered ankle, might just be the difference between victory and defeat.

Tonight’s (8:25 p.m.) Gillette dance with San Francisco? Sure, it’s a large one.

By the time the afternoon games settle themselves, the Pats (10-3) could indeed be playing for the No. 1 seed in the AFC — with only cupcakes Jacksonville and Miami remaining in their crosshairs. After having its manhood stripped here a week ago by the Pats, Houston (11-2) hosts Andrew Luck and the Colts (9-4), while Denver (10-3) has no gimme at the house Ray Lewis built with the Ravens (9-4).

Per usual, Bill Belichick offered little info on the Gronk situation.

“(He is) day-to-day. Hopefully today is better than yesterday,” said the coach on Friday. “Hopefully tomorrow will be better than today.”

Gronkowski’s forearm problem has kept him out of the last three games, and the offense hasn’t exactly struggled, piling up 38.0 points a game.

But the Pats are at the point that any other losses could be critical, especially against legitimate competition in a playoff atmosphere.

Julian Edelman is out. Donte Stallworth filled in and is now out. And Deion Branch was here, was released and is again back.

Visanthe Shiancoe wasn’t the insurance policy we expected. And Aaron Hernandez limps, leans or stumbles back to the huddle after every play he makes. He may just be a matter of time.

Gronkowski plies his trade better than any NFL tight end in the game right now. For this offense, he clears space for Wes Welker, allows Hernandez room to maneuver and blocks like a third tackle in the running game.

He is most needed, not now, but in January and into February. Nothing is guaranteed, but you’ve got to do everything in your power to get him out there.

And that means sitting him now.

Defense in transition

Folks continue to talk about the trickle-down effect on the defense with the addition of Aqib Talib at cornerback.

I’ll say the biggest change in this defense came at some point during the middle of the season when Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick finally let Vince Wilfork loose.

He now penetrates gaps and patrols more — like he did at the University of Miami. Now 31, Wilfork is forcing teams to double him repeatedly. And he’s shown that he can split gaps better than anyone in the game.

Wilfork’s pressure — along with Brandon Spikes staying at home in the middle — has allowed Jerod Mayo to free-lance, shoot and gamble, in turn allowing the linebacker get a bit more proactive.

The heat has impacted the second, which doesn’t have to work so long.

Folks, Kyle Arrington hasn’t transitioned into Jonathan Joseph. He’s just got less time to manhandle receivers, and that’s saving him and Alfonzo Dennard right now. It’s also allowing the safeties, Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory, opportunities as well, as receivers can’t get so deep.

Watch for that today, as the Niners will look to work the deep middle with Vernon Davis and the deep outside with Randy Moss. Pressure, not just from Wilfork or from the edge, but from Mayo, could be the key in taking that away.